Learning how to cope with and to heal the harsh inner critical voices; understanding how they've come to be so powerful.
Criticizing Your Self
When you find your self criticizing your self, stop...
Ask the critic-in-you what it's so afraid of...
Then do what you can to help this old and frightened part feel safe enough to be comfortable
with you being just how you are being right now!
I was raised by a bright, beautiful and very wounded mother. Her pain, frustration and deep sense of inadequacy complicated our relationship from its earliest days. (See Loving Acceptance for more about her.) She was extremely critical and competitive with me. She rarely praised or acknowledged any of my accomplishments. Instead she found much to criticize in anything I did. In fact, the more I did to seek her acknowledgement, the more virulent and dismissive was her criticism.
I responded to this ceaseless disparagement with ever more agitated efforts to do better
(See Doing Better for more about this). Living with such poisonousness spawned in
me a ferocious inner critical voice that became my constant companion for the first
40-some years of my life. This voice, that I called the Hatchet Lady, was the source of an
unrelenting stream of belittling, ridiculing commentary and invective. The Hatchet Lady
denigrated and found fault in all that I did or attempted. (See Eating My Way Home for more about her.)
Whatever project or enterprise I worked at, the Hatchet Lady watched over my shoulder. She invariably had something nasty to say about what I wasn't doing right or acceptably enough for her unreachable standards. Any time I'd accomplish something that might seem of value, she would point out its triviality compared to what I hadn't yet done. Her most typical responses were "Big deal!" "So what!" and "So what's the big deal!"
One day (in my early-mid forties) I was at the Laundromat with my just washed, fairly new, originally 8 1/2 by 11 foot Flokati rug. (A very shaggy rug made from loosely woven sheep's wool). I knew I was in trouble when, as I'd taken the rug from the washer, it'd felt very hot. I was baffled and upset because I thought I'd carefully set the dial to cold wash. Then, when I (after the fact) looked more closely, I noticed that the little raised marker on the dial was actually on its opposite side. The dial I'd set so carefully was in fact pointing to hot wash. I could feel the Hatchet Lady starting to rail at me. I suggested we wait till we got home to see how much damage had really been done.
When I laid the rug in its place, the shrinkage was evident and significant. The Hatchet Lady voice came on in full roar about my carelessness, my stupidity, and on and on. Suddenly, my still-new Mommy-Inside voice rose up. She spoke with love and authority to the furious Hatchet Lady. "There was no great harm done," she said. "We could use the rug just as well in its diminished size." If it felt too wrong this small, we were fortunate enough, at this moment in our life, to have the money to be able to replace it. We could use this one somewhere else in the house. "It wasn't such a terrible mistake," she said. "We had paid close attention, even though we had missed the little raised mark." "There was no reason," she said, for the Hatchet Lady "to be beating us up for this – it was an unfortunate, but not catastrophic, mistake." Surprisingly, the Hatchet Lady backed down, apparently mollified by the Mommy's words.
I was suddenly flooded with a towering rage. I screamed and stomped and roared around the house. And, in the middle of that raging, I cried and cried and cried. I felt outraged at how long the constant, mercilessness of the Hatchet Lady had been devastating me and running my life, at how long I'd spent quaking under the lash of her acid tongue. I could see, in just this moment, that all those criticisms – like these about the rug – were way beyond any reasonable response to the situations that had called them forth.
I raged and cried for all the pain and anguish I'd suffered for so much of my life. I curled up with my teddy bear and rocked my Little One selves. I felt filled with gratitude to the Mommy-Inside who'd taken such good care of us and who'd calmed the fury of the Hatchet Lady.
Until this experience, my response to the Hatchet Lady's attacks had been anxious agitation. I'd frantically scramble around trying to make things right. The Mommy-Inside voice showed me that I could respond differently. I could calm and reassure the critical voice. I could comfort her rather than be cowed and made frantic by her.
It was a moment of illumination. I saw beyond the larger-than-life, Wizard-of-Oz presence of the Hatchet Lady and her nastiness. Hidden beneath her fierceness was a terrified little being whose scared voice had never before reached me.
I saw that the Hatchet Lady had grown in me as an inner policing/ guardian person to protect the terrified Little One whose voice I couldn't (or wouldn't) hear. With her ferocity, the Hatchet Lady had been desperately trying to protect the frightened parts of me. Her searing criticisms were her way to keep me from being or doing what she feared would bring critical attacks from those outside of us. She was convinced that such outside attacks would be scarier, more damaging to the vulnerable parts of me. (That her criticisms were themselves devastating and demoralizing didn't seem to be taken into account in her reasoning process.)
This moment of realization was a mountain-moving turning time. From it began a practice that radically changed my life. Rather than continuing to be tyrannized by her meanness, I started embracing the Hatchet Lady.
Each time the she began belittling me, I told her that she didn't have to hit me over the head that way to get my attention. I told her that I understood that she was trying to let me know that some little part inside me was feeling scared. I told her it wasn't okay for her to talk meanly to me anymore.
I would call to the vulnerable Little One whose terrors were propelling the Hatchet Lady's condemnations. I talked gently and lovingly to that self. I invited her to let me know what was scaring or upsetting her. I promised I would keep working to hear her. I encouraged her to call directly to me. I promised I would respect her fears and do whatever I could to address them. I committed my self to working with her to choose paths that wouldn't be as frightening to her or, to find ways to help her feel less frightened with the paths that I had been choosing.
Sometimes, just my hearing that it was being scary for her was enough for her to risk moving forward with me into new ways of being. Most of the time, what she needed was for me to slow down and reassure her that I would stay in touch with her every step of the way. She had suffered for so long because I wouldn't allow my self to acknowledge her fears and her sense of overwhelm. She'd frequently felt pushed beyond what she could handle. She understood that I had, in the past, felt afraid of her fears. This had frightened her more than anything.
I have been becoming, over the years, a better and better Mommy for all the little and big scared parts of me. I'm much less frightened of being frightened. I'm much more willing to go only as fast as the slowest part of me feels safe to go.
And, I'm also becoming a better Mommy for what's left of the Hatchet Lady. She still occasionally pipes up, (though more and more rarely with each passing year). Most of the time it's a bleat of, "Well, you're only doing that because you're crazy/sick/screwed up/damaged/ unable to do it the way normal people do!" While I still call behind her for the Little One, I also now put my arms around her snarly old self and say, "Honey, so what if that's true? All the more reason to do it just this way!" She lets go of the snarliness every time. Sometimes, it even makes her giggle.
Next time you find your self talking meanly to your self, consider the possibility of listening deeper to hear who else inside of you might be trying to get your attention. If you can hear that scared self, consider the possibility of helping her feel more safe.
And, consider treating that scared part with great tenderness.